Tail wags dog – The Times subsidizes Nexus 7 to snag subscribers

When newspapers began launching paid tablet editions in mid-2010, many of us wondered whether publishers would soon offer free or subsidised iPads to incentivise content subscriptions.

After all, we thought, Times Newspapers’ News Corp stablemate BSkyB, for example, had long successfully issued subsidised set-top boxes with its pay-TV contracts.

Now Times Newspapers is, indeed, trying to tempt digital subscribers with radically low-priced tablet computers on which to read its content — but not with an iPad.

It is giving a 32Gb Nexus 7 mini tablet for just £50 ($80) to customers who buy its £4-a-week ($6.40) digital access pack. That is a big saving of £149 ($240) on the £199 price ($320) of the device.

Those who want to take advantage must commit to subscribe for 18 months, thereby tying in to pay either £299 ($481) up front in one go or an immediate £67.33 ($108) (for the tablet and first month subscription) followed by subsequent £17.33 ($28) monthly payments.

The supplier deal is not clear — ie. whether Times Newspapers has bought the devices at cost and is making a loss on each to scoop up subs, or whether it has achieved favourable prices. Even favourable prices, however, are unlikely to break even on such a big mark-down unless what The Times is really discounting is its subscription rate.

Times digital editorial director Tom Whitwell told me the tie-up is off to a “very strong start”.

Despite speculation, there are few examples of publishers actually subsidising tablet devices in this way.

The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s publishes has tried it, but got fewer subscribers than hoped for, while the Chicago Tribune reportedly toyed with making its own tablet for readers.

The Times has previously offered itself through 3 mobile phone service and Groupon to try stimulating demand for a subscriber base that is not growing fast, hovering over 130,000.

This pairing, of course, is one that needs each other — Google needs reasons for consumers to buy Nexus tablets instead of iPads as much as newspapers want consumers to buy their tablet content.